Avoiding Non-Jewish Cooking in Order to Maintain Jewish Continuity: A Halachic Analysis. By Rabbi Yair Hoffman
The following column may appear controversial, as it calls for a shift in our current practice. However, we should always look to do the right thing. We must, in fact, do the right thing, even when it is difficult.
The Jewish nation has a mandate to be an ohr amim – a light to the nation. In our davening we recite daily the words – “Hodu la’Hashem, kiru bishemo, hodi’u ba’amim alilosav… sapru ba-goyim k’vodo b’chol ha’amim nifla’osav.” Some will say that this is not for now, but for a future time. But, even if it is for a future time – in order to do this, we need to be able to remain on mission.
There is a Rabbinic enactment that was designed to keep Klal Yisroel on mission. The enactment is known as avoiding bishul akum in order to maintain Jewish continuity. In terms of the Kashrus standards of our communities, for some reason, our community vaadim have latched onto a unique leniency – specifically our reliance on merely having the fire turned on by the mashgiach to avoid what would otherwise be considered bishul akum.
The leniency is called “hadlakas ha’eish” and is, truth be told, adopted by Rabbi Moshe Isserles, author of the Rama in his commentary on the Shulchan Aruch (Y.D. 113:7). The Shulchan Aruch states explicitly that a ben or bas yisroel must contribute significantly to the cooking process. Essentially, the Rema’s ruling states that if the ben or bas Yisroel were to merely light the fire, this is enough to countermand the prohibition of bishul akum.
WAS IT POST FACTO OR EVEN IDEALLY?
It is unclear, however, whether the Rema meant this leniency as an ideal to adopt or whether he merely ruled that, post facto, the food is not to be declared “prohibited.” This is actually a debate among Poskim, and one should ask one’s own Rav as to his thoughts. It is significant.
Aside from this question, there is another issue. Today most kashrus organizations have taken the Rema a step further and rely on a pilot light lit by a ben or bas yisroel many days, weeks, or months prior to the actual cooking – a practice to which that many halachic authorities have raised serious opposition. The extension is a step removed from the Remah’s heter, and it is unclear if he would have advocated the extension either.
SCANT TALMUDIC BASIS
There appears to be scant basis for this leniency in the Talmud itself. The section of the Talmud that deals with the issue of bishul akum is found in Tractate Avodah Zarah (38a). A bereisa quoted there states that someone may place the food upon the fire and allow the eino Yehudi to continue cooking it until it is finished. The bereisa seems to be teaching us the parameters of what constitutes bishul akum.
Had the leniency of merely lighting the fire been acceptable as well, it is likely that the bereisa would have informed us of this. Later on, the Gemara, in fact, states this very leniency of lighting the fire in regard to the baking of bread. (Halachah generally draws a distinction between the prohibitions of breads baked by an eino Yehudi and foods cooked by an eino Yehudi.) Why didn’t the Gemorah suggest this for cooking?
A DEBATE BETWEEN THE RAMAH AND SHACH
In addition to the idea that lighting the fire is sufficient, the Rema seems to be lenient in another matter as well. He indicates that if the Yehudi partook in a part of the cooking that would not have eventually accomplished a full cooking of the food, it is still sufficient. The Shach (Y.D. 113:9) writes that this is against our Gemarah.
A number of Rishonim hold that food prepared with this leniency is not kosher. This is the view of the Rashba, Ran, Ritva, and RiVash, among others. The Shulchan Aruch too clearly prohibits food that was prepared by an eino Yehudi when only the fire was lit by a Yehudi. It should also be noted that none of the other Rishonim mention any hint of such a leniency in their codes. Not the Rif, the Rosh, nor the Rambam.
THE VIEW OF THE VILNA GAON
The Vilna Gaon writes that food prepared with this leniency is not kosher. The Vilna Gaon identifies the source of the Rema’s leniency in regard to when the Jew had stoked the fire. He states that the Rema’s ruling was based on the idea found in the Talmud in Tractate Shavuos that when someone else other than a kohain brings a korban onto the fire, he is liable with his life. This is true even when the non-kohain merely sped up the cooking process by stoking the fire. The Vilna Gaon writes that the Rema’s extension of this idea to include just lighting the fire for cooking is incorrect. The Vilna Gaon would thus not have eaten at any one of our restaurants that rely on this leniency.
A few Acharonim, including the Chayei Adam, write that we should avoid relying upon this leniency if possible. The TaZ also writes that this leniency of the Rema should only be relied upon in the home of a Yisrael, but otherwise, it should not be relied upon. Indeed, when the author of the Levush, Rabbi Mordechai Yaffe, a student of the Rema himself, reformulated the ruling, he left out the words employed by his teacher in the original formulation, “and this is how we rule.” The implication is that the Levush himself was uncomfortable with it.
RAV CHAIM KANIEVSKY’S VIEW
This author posed the question to Rav Chaim Kanievsky shlita.
בחו”ל כל וועד של כשרות סומכים לכתחילה על היתר הדלקת האש של הרמ”א [וזהו שלא כהחיי אדם והגר”א].
האם ראוי להם להחמיר – או אינו כדאי?
In America, every Vaad HaKashrus relies lechatchila on the leniency of the Ramah of a Jew lighting the pilot light to stop bishul akum. This is not in accordance with the Chayei Adam and the Vilna Gaon. Should they be stringent or is it not worthwhile?
We see that it is the Gadol HaDor’s view that our kashrus agencies should adopt the Vilna Gaon’s view ideally, and, ideally, not rely on the leniency mentioned in the Ramah.
Avoiding this leniency would provide necessary jobs for Jewish youth as well as Jewish men who are out of work. Very few jobs are available for young Jewish men and women who are not in college or studying in yeshiva. If we, as a community were to try to avoid this leniency, then jobs in the local cooking industries would open up. An extra 30 to 40 jobs in our neighborhood alone would be a tremendous boon to those looking for work.
It would cause an overall improvement to our kashrus standards and help prevent people from stumbling in this area of halachic observance. The reality is that in many homes in the neighborhood, cooking is done by einam Yehudim, even with ovens that do not have pilot lights, with the result that bishul akum is virtually ignored in our neighborhoods. Part of the reason why they take it so lightly is that they do not see the restaurants observing this either. If our local Vaads would upgrade this standard, the change would be readily identifiable – and people would realize the seriousness of this halachah.
It would show that we also care that our Sephardic brethren can keep kosher in our establishments as well. It is unfortunate that in this area we have established our kashrus standards to meet only the requirements of Ashkenazic Jews who hold of the leniency, while ignoring the needs and requirements of our Sephardic brethren. This is perplexing because we do often accommodate those who observe chalav Yisrael at a much greater expense, even though the majority of local residents do not exclusively eat chalav Yisrael. Why have we not been as accommodating toward Sephardim?
A counterargument. One might counter that in a restaurant setting, it is not highly likely that bishul akum would result in intermarriage. Also, there is an additional expense involved here.
While this may be true, we must consider that the sages who enacted the protective fences of Judaism were much wiser than we are. Aside from the respect that we must have for halachah itself, there are also farther-reaching repercussions to consider. The issue of laxity involving the bishul akum of household help is serious and has, unfortunately, led to some serious lapses. Also, it is Rav Chaim Kanievsky’s opinion that we should make the move. So why shouldn’t we do so?
NOT ATTACKING THE RAMAH
This article is not stating that the Rema should not be relied upon even b’dieved. We should not question a lenient ruling that has become part of the mesorah of K’lal Yisrael. But there is no loss involved in following the ruling of the Vilna Gaon and the Gadol Hador. This article is advocating improving the standard so that we can observe the laws of kashrus l’chatchilah, in the best manner possible. The Midrash tells us (Shir HaShirim Rabbah) that, at least according to one opinion, the entire episode of the rise of Haman happened because we were lax in the area of bishul akum at the initial party made by Achashverosh.
We can only stand to benefit by upgrading our observance of this aspect of kashrus. We can perhaps even add the following four-word acronym to existing hechshereim: BYLH – Bishul Yisroel lechol hadayos.
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